Red Sox: bullpen’s right side is a game-changer in 2016

Feb 24, 2016; Lee County, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) throws during the workout at Jet Blue Park. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 24, 2016; Lee County, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox pitcher Craig Kimbrel (46) throws during the workout at Jet Blue Park. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports /

The Red Sox finished the 2015 season in last place in the AL East for the third time in the last four years, and one cause was their bullpen.

As we all know by now, the Red Sox, with a 78-84 record, finished the 2015 season in last place in the AL East for the third time in the last four years.  Although many have dissected and opined on what the root cause of the 2015 season was, a look at the numbers makes one thing very clear: the weakest aspect of last season’s Red Sox was the right side of the bullpen.

The Red Sox offense scored 748 runs in 2015, which was fourth-best in all of baseball.  As for their starting pitching, although they struggled during the first half of the season, so did the starters of the eventual World Series champion Royals.  During the second half of the season, the Red Sox starters had the ninth-best ERA in all of baseball and the fourth-best in the American League.

With regard to the Red Sox bullpen, it was one of the worst in all of baseball throughout the season.  Overall, their bullpen ERA was 4.24, which was fifth-worst in the majors and third-worst in the American League.  A big reason for the Red Sox bullpen’s 4.24 ERA were the struggles of the right-handers.  For example, three left-handers finished in the top five in appearances, and they all finished with ERAs under the team’s average, with Robbie Ross‘ at 3.86, Tommy Layne‘s at 3.97 and Craig Breslow‘s at 4.15.

Based on number of appearances, the top six right-handers in the bullpen in 2015 were Alexi Ogando, Junichi Tazawa, Koji Uehara, Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree and Jean Machi.  Here’s how they all performed last season:

  1. Alexi Ogando – 64 G, 65.1 IP, 59 H, 12 HR, 28 BB, 53 SO, 3.99 ERA.  Overall, Ogando’s per nine inning averages were 1.7 HR, 3.9 BB and 7.3 SO.
  2. Junichi Tazawa – 61 G, 58.2 IP, 65 H, 5 HR, 13 BB, 56 SO, 4.14 ERA.  Overall, Tazawa’s per nine inning averages included 10 H, 2.0 BB and 8.6 SO.
  3. Koji Uehara – 43 G, 40.1 IP, 28 H, 3 HR, 9 BB, 47 SO, 2.23 ERA.  Overall, Koji’s per nine inning averages included 0.7 HR, 2.0 BB and 10.5 SO.
  4. Matt Barnes – 32 G, 43 IP, 56 H, 9 HR, 15 BB, 39 SO, 5.44 ERA.  Overall, Barnes’ per nine inning totals included 11.7 H, 1.9 HR, 3.1 BB and 8.2 SO.
  5. Heath Hembree – 22 G, 25.1 IP, 25 H, 5 HR, 9 BB, 15 SO, 3.55 ERA.  Overall, Hembree’s per nine inning totals included 1.8 HR, 3.2 BB and 5.3 SO.
  6. Jean Machi – 26 G, 23 IP, 21 H, 5 HR, 8 BB, 20 SO, 5.09 ERA.  Overall, Machi’s per nine inning totals included 2 HR, 3.1 BB and 7.8 SO.

As you can see, the top six right-handers the Red Sox used out of their bullpen last season performed quite poorly in multiple facets of the game, except for Koji, who missed much of the second half of the season.  Needless to say, it was a disaster.  To fix this, the Red Sox made multiple offseason decisions, including trading for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, and giving a sense of direction to Matt Barnes by telling him as soon as the season ended that he was going to be a reliever only moving forward.  Compare Kimbrel and Smith’s numbers from last season to the six Red Sox referenced above:

  1. Craig Kimbrel – 61 G, 59.1 IP, 40 H, 6 HR, 22 BB, 87 SO, 2.58 ERA.  Overall, Kimbrel’s per nine inning averages were 6.1 H, 0.9 HR, 3.3 BB and 13.2 SO.  Kimbrel’s strikeout rate nearly doubled every single Red Sox right-hander, except for Koji.  His hit/HR rate was also far superior to most of the Red Sox bullpen arms.
  2. Carson Smith – 70 G, 70 IP, 49 H, 2 HR, 22 BB, 92 SO, 2.31 ERA.  Overall, Smith’s per nine inning averages were 6.3 H, 0.3 HR, 2.8 BB and 11.8 SO.  Smith had a fantastic 2015 campaign.  His numbers would have ranked first in almost every category on the Red Sox.  Most impressive are his HR, BB and SO rates.

In effect, since Koji is returning this season, Kimbrel and Smith are taking the spots of Ogando and Machi, which may be the Red Sox greatest upgrades across the entire roster heading into the 2016 season.  With Kimbrel and Smith, the ERA and SO/9 numbers for the Red Sox top three relievers in 2015 would have been 2.28, 2.31 and 2.58 ERA and 10.5, 11.8 and 13.2, respectively.

As for the final two right-hander spots, they will be filled by Tazawa and Barnes in 2016.  Think about the fact that Tazawa, who had a down year in 2015, is moving from the first or second most important right-handed reliever to the fourth.  That is how much the addition of Kimbrel and Smith means to this bullpen.  Not only do they upgrade the Red Sox at the actual spots they are going to fill, but they make the rest of the bullpen better as well.  Compare Tazawa to the fourth right-handed reliever in 2015, which was Barnes, who finished the season with a 5.44 ERA.  All of a sudden, Tazawa, who you have to expect will rebound slightly in 2016, looks like a great option on the right side.

The overhaul of the right side of the bullpen has already paid dividends this spring, as it has been the strongest part of the Red Sox roster through the first three weeks of games.  Here is how everyone outside Koji, who is still attempting to return to full health, has performed:

  1. Craig Kimbrel –   4.0 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 6 SO, .071 BAA, 0.00 ERA
  2. Carson Smith – 4.0 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 4 SO, .143 BAA, 0.00 ERA
  3. Junichi Tazawa – 4.0 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 5 SO, .250 BAA, 2.25 ERA
  4. Matt Barnes – 7.0 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 8 SO, .174 BAA, 0.00 ERA

Overall, this spring, these four have combined for 19 IP, 11 H, 3 BB, 23 SO and a 0.47 ERA.  As such, it is clear the depth of the right side of the Red Sox bullpen has a chance to become one of this roster’s greatest strengths, which could be exactly what this team needs to go from last-to-first again this season.

As previously referenced, the team’s offense was top five in runs scored in 2015 and they return everyone from last season’s starting lineup.  The rotation finished the second half with a top-10 ERA in 2015 and the rotation that achieved this success did not include David Price or Clay Buchholz, who will fill the top two spots of the rotation in 2016.  Therefore, what had to change for the 2016 season to be a success was the bullpen, and what had to change in the bullpen was the right side.  I say that because the left side, led by Ross and Layne, were strong last year and both have returned to the bullpen this season, while the right side was its weakest link.

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Well, as you can see, between the addition of Kimbrel and Smith, the clear direction provided to Barnes and the potential resurgence of Tazawa, the right side has not only been completely overhauled, but also potentially strengthened to the point it will be one of the best in baseball.  If so, first place may very well be in reach for the 2016 Red Sox.